From: Come, Creator Spirit
But now it is time to ask ourselves about what kind of life are we speaking when we say that the Spirit gives life. The faith of the church has never had any hesitation or doubt in answering this question. We are talking of divine life, that is to say, the life that has its source in God the Father, which in Christ “was made visible,” (1 John 1:2), and in baptism is given to the believer. Between this life and the natural life that we have from our human birth there is no real opposition (both come from God who is the absolute master of all life, physical as well as spiritual); yet the two are diverse and in contrast on the moral level, as we see in the well-known antitheses: nature / grace, flesh / Spirit, old life / new life, Earthly life / eternal life.
The diversity is due to the fact that this new life according to the Spirit is the fruit of a new intervention by God, different from the creation; the contrast is due to the fact that sin has caused nature life to be closed in, “bent back” upon itself, and so of itself resistant to receiving the life that is according to the Spirit.
The reason for the contrast, however, is not found only in human sin, that is, in an event that came about in the course of history. Its roots are sunk deep in the very composition of human nature which is made up of two elements, one material and the other immaterial, one tending to carry it toward multiplicity and the other tending toward unity. There is no need whatever to think (as some Gnostics, Manicheans, and many others have thought) that these two elements derive from two rival “Creators,” a good one who created the soul and an evil one who created all things material, the body included. The one and only God created both together, in a profound, “substantial” unity. He did not, however, create human nature to remain static, as if human beings should be content to remain in this intermediate position, the two forces within them nicely counterbalancing and canceling each other out. On the contrary, God created human beings so that in the actual exercise of their own freedom, each should decide freely in which direction to develop and come to self-realization: either “upward,” toward that which is “above” them, or “downward,” toward that which is “beneath” them. “The soul finds itself between these two things: at times it follows that Spirit, and thanks to the Spirit, is able to fly; and at times it obeys the flesh, and falls into desiring Earthly things.” (Irenaeus)
Human dignity lies precisely in this ability to choose and determine one’s individual goal freely. One of the philosophers of the Renaissance said that it was as if God, by creating humans as free beings, was saying to them:
I have put you half way in the universe, so that you may best perceive what there is in you. I have not made you beings of Heaven only or of Earth, nor mortal or immortal, because you by yourselves, like free master-builders, will mold and sculpt yourselves according to the pattern you have chosen. You could degenerate and become something inferior, a mere animal; you could, if you will, regenerate yourself and become something higher than yourself, divine. (G. Pico della Mirandola)
This explains the struggle between flesh and spirit and hence the dramatic quality that characterizes a Christian’s existence in the world. If “to choose is to renounce,” it is not possible to choose to live according to the Spirit without sacrificing something of life according to the flesh.
Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law – indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. (Romans 8:5-8)
The contrast between the two ways of living eventually emerges as the contrast between life and death. “If you do live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live,” (Romans 8:13).
The relationship between death in the flesh and life in the Spirit is not to be understood as a relationship in the order of time: We need first to die to the flesh, and to ourselves, in order next to experience the new life and resurrection. Rather, it is a relationship of simultaneity and of cause and effect. It is in the very act of dying to the flesh that one experiences and grows in the new life of the Spirit; it is in the measure of one’s conformity to the crucified Christ that one shares in the life of the risen Christ, while we are awaiting that ultimate outcome when there will no longer be any contrast.
This is not a question of sacrificing one of the elements of human nature in order to save the other, but of preserving both. The flesh itself cannot be saved except through the spirit, as long as the spirit itself is saved. In her Dialogue Between the Soul and the Body. Saint Catherine of Genoa shows how it is simply not possible to satisfy all the demands of the body and all the demands of the soul at the same time. Either the body will enslave the soul for the sake of its bodily goals, or the soul will subject the body for the sake of its spiritual goals. In this dialogue the soul says to the body: If you do what I tell you, we will both be saved eternally, but if I do what you want, we will both be lost forever.
This contrast provides the basis for all asceticism which, for that matter, is not a specifically Christian thing, but in various forms is found in all great religions, almost without exception. Whatever the case, it is unfair to lay at Augustine’s door the “blame” for what came to be called “hatred of the body” because that (if one can speak of it as “hatred”) was there in full measure in the Christianity of the East, starting with the Desert Fathers, quite apart from Augustine or any influence he may have had.
It cannot be denied that asceticism was at times taken to excess. But one saint like Francis of Assisi is enough to show how “mortification” and the most radical forms of renunciation can accord very well with a tremendous love of life and for things, and with ecstatic delight in God’s creatures.